Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents


19 May 2009

Member of the Sub-Committee taking part in the visit were: Lord Haskel, Lord Krebs (Chairman), Lord Methuen, Lord Mitchell, Baroness Neuberger, Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve, and the Earl of Selborne.

In attendance: Professor Stephen Holgate (Specialist Adviser), Ms Rachel Newton (Policy Analyst) and Mr Antony Willott (Clerk).

Meeting with Dr Jim Crilly (Executive Vice President), Dr Julia Fentem (Head of Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre), Dr Eddie Pelan (Platform Director, Unilever Discover Organisation), Dr Mike Butler (Director, Materials and Processing), Dr Bobbie Bradford (Product Toxicologist, SEAC)), Dr Helen David (Lead Scientist, Environmental Protection, SEAC) and Ms Helen Fenwick (Public Affairs Manager)

Presentation by Dr Jim Crilly

Dr Crilly welcomed the Committee to Unilever's research and development (R&D) facility at Colworth, Bedfordshire. Unilever was one of the world's largest food companies; it employed around 170,000 employees and operated in around 100 countries worldwide. The R&D facility at Colworth employed over 700 people, and contained Unilever's Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC) which assessed the safety of all Unilever products.

Presentation by Dr Eddie Pelan

Food already contained structures at the micro and nanoscale. Margarine contained water droplets smaller than 10 microns across, with even smaller fat crystals interspersed between them. Fruit juice contained plant material that was built from nanoscale components, while Bailey's Irish Cream contained nano-emulsions with an average droplet size of 190nm. Naturally occurring nanomaterials found in food ranged in size from particles smaller than 100nm found in drinks such as tea, beer and coffee, to protein structures of around 300nm found in eggs or soy, to larger oil particles of around 800nm found in substances such as milk. All food, including processed food, was structured at the nanoscale, and consequently the body had evolved to deal with nano-scaled materials over time.

Many of the major food companies were exploring the nanoscale structuring of food. Between 2003 and 2006, around 40-70 patents were filed each year relating to food nanoscience. Unilever was using nanoscience to gain a better understanding of the structure of food in order to affect the functionality of food, such as its composition, appearance, texture and taste, using a variety of materials and assembly methods.

Nanomaterials were not simply substances smaller than 100nm; the properties of many materials change over a range of sizes. The important defining aspect was a change in physical, chemical or biological properties compared to the bulk material. Unilever was using food ingredients when exploring the potential of nanotechnologies. There was a clear difference between biodegradable nanotechnologies constructed from natural food grade components, and all other forms of nanotechnologies. Nanotechnologies had to be seen as a framework that enables the design of macroscopic structures using nanoscale building blocks.

Tour of Measurement Science facility with Mike Butler

The Committee were given a tour the Measurement Science facility. Discussion focused on the following points:

  • The need for expensive and complicated equipment to detect and characterise nanomaterials in biological systems.
  • Even with appropriate equipment, observing nanomaterials directly is a difficult and complicated process. Unilever was constantly working on new methods of improving observation techniques.

Presentation by Dr Julia Fentem

Dr Fentem outlined the role that the Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC) plays within Unilever. SEAC provided Unilever with independent scientific advice and guidance to help identify and manage risks to consumers, workers and the environment, and the environmental impact of Unilever products. Responsibility for safety assessment was formally delegated to SEAC by the Chief Executive, to ensure that product safety approval was independent of categories, regions and functions.

SEAC was developing new risk and impact assessment approaches to cope with new challenges and was building up its in-house capability in hazard characterisation, exposure assessment and risk and impact assessment. It fed into corporate policy on all aspects of product safety, and considered the company's position on wider ethical issues such as alternatives to animal testing and the ethics of human research. It was also working with regulators and policy-makers by sharing scientific evidence from its work, as well as engaging with wider bodies such as industry partners, trade associations and NGOs in developing and applying new safety approaches.

The process of incorporating new technologies into food products can take years. Unilever identified ice structuring protein (ISP) as a commercially viable ice-cream ingredient in 1994. SEAC finally gave ISP market approval in 2001after seven years of safety and risk assessment alongside product development. It was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2003. Unilever submitted ISP for approval by the European Union in 2006, and received novel foods approval in May 2009.

Discussion focused on the following points:

  • Unilever was not very pro-active at showing the public how it carries out its safety assessments. While it could be argued that this might assure the public of the safety of finished products, it was pointed out that consumers need to feel that all food products on the market are safe; if Unilever tried to use its comprehensive safety work as a marketing tool for competitive advantage, it could have a serious impact on consumer confidence in the entire food industry.
  • SEAC discussions with regulators were typically a constant, informal dialogue, rather than part of a more formal process.

Presentation by Dr Bobbie Bradford

Dr Bradford detailed the risk assessment process followed by Unilever at SEAC, and in particular how it related to the safety assessment of nanomaterials. Engineered nanomaterials are substances that have been deliberately created, and are composed of discrete functional and structural parts smaller than 100nm. They had applications in a variety of industry sectors due to their novel properties.

It was very difficult to quantify potential exposure to nanomaterials. Research was underway into whether they can move through natural biomembranes, such as from the lung to the blood or from the blood to the brain. They may potentially accumulate in the body, although it is not yet known in which organs this might occur. Environmental exposure might occur through numerous sources, ranging from the production process through to waste disposal, and the behaviour of nanomaterials once they enter the soil or water table is difficult to monitor or measure.

There were particular safety concerns over nanomaterials that are bio-persistent. Compared to standard substances, nanomaterials may have both an increased hazard, or an increased exposure, or both. Both hazard and exposure must be known to quantify risk.

SEAC was working to assure the suitability of a risk assessment framework for nanomaterials covering consumer, occupational and environmental (COE) safety, tailored as required to meet the specific concerns of nanomaterials. SEAC was informing the development of this framework through participation in regulatory and industry-led collaborations, which includes contributing to; the OECD working party on nanomaterials; the DEFRA Nanoscience Initiative; the International Life Sciences Institute's working party on Novel Foods and Nanotechnology Task Force. It also supported both internal and external research, including collaborations with academia, and monitored the development of relevant regulatory legislation and initiatives, including scientific opinions from relevant EU and UK advisory committees.

Discussion focused on the following points:

  • What types of nanomaterials posed the highest risk. SEAC looked into whether normal food ingredients, manufactured at the nanoscale, posed a higher risk. They concluded that, since they would break down in the gut in the same way as normal food, they were not a high risk safety concern. In contrast, persistent nanomaterials or those presenting a brand new functionality as a result of their small size were of more concern.
  • Given the range and variety of nanomaterials, it would be necessary to prioritise research to ensure that those types of substances most likely to be used in food received early attention.

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